Casting Helen of Troy

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 13 2004 7:44 PM

The Many Faces of Helen

How to find an actress who can launch a thousand ships.

Hot enough for you?
Hot enough for you?

Click here to see a slide show that explains how casting directors and artists have solved—and, more often, failed to solve—this problem.

For the producers of Troy, the forthcoming Warner Brothers spectacle, finding an actress to play Helen was tricky. There is no shortage of beautiful women in Hollywood, but faces that can reliably launch thousands of ships are scarce.

TheIliad, you'll remember, boasts a very improbable plot: Helen—who was universally considered the most ravishing woman around—was married to Menelaus, the Spartan king, until Paris, a pretty boy from Troy, seduced her and carried her off. Menelaus, incensed, then launched his ships, set sail for Troy, and fought a bloody 10-year war to get her back. The ensuing carnage calls for a woman who is literally drop-dead beautiful.

Which leaves casting directors with a dilemma: What does drop-dead beautiful look like these days? As we become increasingly convinced that beauty—and truth, and almost everything else—lies in the eye of the beholder, we're less likely to concur about how Helen should appear. Already, critics who've seen the film quibble that the Helen in Troy is not beautiful enough. This is not the fault of the casting directors, who considered Victoria's Secret models and improbable pop stars alike. How can you find—or, in the case of artists, paint—a woman who everyone will agree is the most beautiful on earth?

Click here to see a slide show that explains how casting directors and artists have solved—and, more often, failed to solve—this problem.

Julia Turner is Slate's deputy editor and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast. Follow her on Twitter.